Silos, secrecy and quiet deals: How dysfunction became Stormont’s norm

The cash-for-ash inquiry has shed light on the North’s furtive, unusual political culture

Two years ago, following days of political fever, a tiny group of journalists was called hurriedly to Martin McGuinness's office in Stormont. There they witnessed his final major political act, his resignation as deputy first minister.

Physically gaunt, audibly weak, the Sinn Féin veteran, by then clearly dying, brought to an end almost a decade of unbroken devolution under a power-sharing Executive headed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

By then Belfast had been awash with revelations for a month about the cash-for-ash scandal, which was politically fraught because it had been set up by first minister Arlene Foster during her time as minister for energy in 2012.

If they knew nothing else about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, the public knew it paid £1.60 for every £1 of fuel burned in a wood-pellet boiler by those lucky enough – or well-connected enough – to have registered in time.


The scheme’s earnings had been uncapped, although it was then projected to cost Stormont’s coffers hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 20 years.

People knew, too, that it was alleged powerful DUP figures had kept the subsidy alive when they knew it was out of control in order to let others take advantage.

Sinn Féin’s exit was portrayed at the time as a principled move that brought an an end to “DUP arrogance” after Foster had refused to step aside for an investigation.

Two years on, however, a wider story can be told thanks to a forensic public inquiry chaired by retired Court of Appeal judge Patrick Coghlin – an inquiry Sinn Féin had first opposed but then accepted.

The inquiry has shed light on the relationship built up over a decade between the DUP and Sinn Féin. So much of that relationship was in secret, away from the public eye.

So far, too, the inquiry has exposed multiple examples of where the civil service conformed to their political masters’ desire to bend or break rules, turning a blind eye.

David Sterling, who is now the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, admitted that officials had consciously not recorded many internal discussions that ought to have been minuted.

That, he said, was because the DUP and Sinn Féin were “sensitive to criticism”. It had become “common” not to keep records because such records are subject to Freedom of Information.

Northern Ireland is a unique entity, he argued: “It reflects in some respects just the challenges facing the senior civil service working in this particular devolved administration,” he told the inquiry.

Defending their handling of RHI, civil servant after civil servant used one word – “realpolitik” – to explain how they justified it to themselves on the basis that the end justified the means.

DUP’s second in command

A similar justification was offered by the powerful DUP special adviser Timothy Johnston, a man largely unknown to the public but one who has emerged as the power behind the thrones of successive DUP leaders.

He was described by another DUP special adviser as being second only to the leader in the party’s hierarchy, above MPs, MLAs and even, prior to the collapse of devolution, Stormont ministers.

“We didn’t always want the public to see the elements of the [Stormont] sausage machine because it wasn’t always pretty,” Johnston told the inquiry. “It may not always be possible to be as pure as what is done in other places.”

Special advisers were appointed in ways that did not “comply with the letter and the spirit” of the law, he admitted – rules that laid down that ministers should freely appoint their own people.

In a letter, then enterprise minister Jonathan Bell had claimed that he had made his own choice. In reality it had been foisted upon him by then DUP leader Peter Robinson and Johnston, helping to centralise power around Robinson.

Ultimately, the special adviser knew that he did not owe his job to his minister but to Robinson and Johnston. That, it was suggested at the inquiry, was why he heeded Johnson’s instructions to delay putting in place RHI cost controls.

Johnston denies having given such instructions.

The rules that were supposed to govern special advisers' appointments were not London rules but ones that had been drawn up by the Northern Ireland Assembly, reflecting Stormont's particular circumstances, to quote the DUP.

Sinn Féin rule-breaking

Sinn Féin broke the rules, too, but differently. In 2013 it had appointed Mary McArdle as a special adviser. McArdle had taken part in the 1984 killing of a judge's daughter, Mary Travers, as she came out of Mass.

Faced with public disquiet, Stormont MLAs barred those with serious criminal convictions from such posts. Sinn Féin argued against this, but were out-voted by unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

Publicly, Sinn Féin appeared to accept the change and moved to replace its “spads” (special advisers) with criminal records. In reality the inquiry has revealed how it acted to nullify the law’s effect.

Former Sinn Féin minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said that his party viewed the law as “an attack on the peace process” and resolved to retain the advisers who were now barred from working in departments.

The most senior was Aidan McAteer, who not only continued to advise Martin McGuinness but was given a role whereby he oversaw and managed both Sinn Féin's special advisers and ministers.

Ó Muilleoir told the inquiry: “I don’t think there would have been any difference in McAteer’s role pre and post the 2013 Act in terms of how he would have behaved and done his job every day.”

In doing so, Sinn Féin was confident that the DUP would not make a fuss, since, to quote the then head of the civil service, Malcolm McKibbin, they viewed McAteer as a “pragmatist” with whom they had a “constructive” relationship.

Civil servants, not just the DUP, went along with this parallel system of improperly appointed “super-spads” since they worked every day out of Stormont departments, meeting officials.

In his evidence McKibbin said he accepted it because “whether or not Aidan McAteer had been in the building or not, and whether I had ever seen him, he could’ve exercised that same function from party headquarters”.

The issue is not just a matter of titles and salaries, however. Super-spads were not registered as departmental advisers, so they were not bound by official codes, or indeed the Official Secrets Act.

Aversion to openness

Meanwhile, there had been no way for the public to find out about the practice since both parties had an aversion to the Freedom of Information Act, particularly the DUP.

Minister for the economy, Simon Hamilton of the DUP, dealt with just a fifth of FoI requests within the time permitted by law, while many were left unanswered until the Executive collapsed.

Once it did, top official Andrew McCormick ordered replies to be made. Nevertheless, he later argued that Stormont's lapses had to be forgiven because "unlike Whitehall, "it hasn't had decades – centuries – to establish" roots.

“It’s a very young set of institutions, and the tensions are multidimensional in the nature of enforced coalition ... You know, 10 years is a very short time in terms of organisational behaviour.”

Illustrating the dysfunction that was accepted as normal at Stormont, McCormick told of how ministers sometimes live-tweeted as they sat around the Executive’s table during formal meetings.

The inquiry's head was clearly baffled as to why ministers had not been disciplined . Replying, McCormick said the nature of institutions created by the Belfast Agreement made them difficult to police.

Censuring someone “who offends is actually quite difficult, both technically, in terms of the way the checks and balances work, and more importantly politically”, he told the inquiry.

The DUP and Sinn Féin sorted problems “privately”, away from the eyes of officials, never mind the public, he said, though he accepted that Johnston and McAteer carried “a very heavy burden” and wanted the system to work.

But not everything can be excused on the grounds of justified political pragmatism. Officials knowingly misled Stormont's Department of Finance during the summer of 2015, senior civil servant Trevor Cooper told the inquiry

By then RHI was out of control. However, ministers and special advisers were not kept in the loop, while a mandatory review that might have uncovered the scheme’s perverse incentives had never been conducted.

Cooper, a bluntly spoken official who was head of finance in the Department of Enterprise, said he was "not defending" what had happened and that it reflected a "potentially cultural" problem across the civil service.

Ultimately, officials in the Department for the Economy tried to convince the Department of Finance that RHI was still value for money, implying that the mandatory review had been done, even though everyone involved knew it had not.

‘Free money’ from London

Painting a picture of a bureaucracy operating in silos, Cooper said his department was more focused on protecting itself from criticism than on presenting the full truth – even to other civil servants in the same administration.

Responding to a suggestion that officials had made “an untrue statement”, Cooper said the tone of their discussions had been, “We’re not in a great place here, you know – we need to put our best foot forward”.

By then, many of the key DUP figures and their officials believed that the funding coming directly from the Treasury in London rather than out of Stormont’s own budget was “free money”.

McCormick told Coghlin that Foster's long-standing special adviser Andrew Crawford, who is accused of deliberately delaying efforts to rein in RHI, had told him that he thought Northern Ireland could exploit funding from London.

During a November, 2016 dinner, just a month before the controversy became public knowledge, a “smiling” Crawford had told McCormick that Stormont “could fill our boots” with London’s money.

Crawford has denied he had ever said such a thing.

However, the inquiry had already uncovered a Crawford email where he told a fellow DUP special adviser that he was “a little confused” about why people were expressing concerns about costs.

“If we go over our 4 per cent target all that will happen is that we will get more than our fair share of the UK pot … I would have thought that this is to Northern Ireland’s advantage,” Crawford’s email read.

However, the extra money was not forthcoming from London. There was "complete dismay" when senior Stormont officials realised that Stormont would have to pay the bill , senior civil servant Chris Stewart told the inquiry.

Up until then, Stormont officials had feared one day sitting before "a Public Accounts Committee, being very seriously criticised for perhaps having poor value for money ... that would've been a very, very serious situation."

However, the realisation that they would not just be criticised for allowing expenditure to run out of control but would be asked to find the extra money required “was in order of magnitude worse”, he said.

Drawbacks of duopoly

Throughout the Coghlin inquiry, the evidence of many civil servants and politicians suggests that the overriding, if generally unspoken, policy goal of those working in the system was to keep Stormont in place.

Personal issues intruded, too, however. Ambitious officials knew they had to keep on the right side of the DUP and Sinn Féin, because both had increasingly gained power over civil service appointments.

Together they changed the rules on the appointment of the head of the civil service so that – uniquely within the UK – it was Foster and McGuinness who personally conducted the final interviews for the post in 2016.

The lack of political competition facing the DUP and Sinn Féin meant that officials faced dealing with the same people for years. In all, they were left too weak to speak truth to power.

Pausing at the end of his six days of testimony, McCormick, one of Stormont’s most senior and most experienced civil servants, spoke directly about his own role and that of the civil service in the scandal.

“We bear shame ... I personally bear shame; I feel ashamed personally for not doing better ... I look at that with regret because I should have stood up; I should have asked for a [ministerial] direction that day [as cost controls were delayed]. That’s my responsibility.”

Briefly emotional, McCormick said RHI had caused him “personal damage”. Worse still it had undermined devolution, in which he had passionately believed. However, Coghlin’s report could lay “a new foundation”, he hoped.

Influence of ex-IRA figures

So far the RHI inquiry has most damaged the DUP and the civil service, but it has also embarrassed Sinn Féin, illuminating some of that secretive party’s inner-most structures and deliberations.

Texts and emails in late January 2017 show that minister for finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir had to get approval from unelected senior republican Ted Howell, better known for being an IRA go-between in the 1990s..

Ó Muilleoir had been asked to approve a plan to slash the costs of a scheme that by then had been closed to new entrants for almost a year, but officials fretted that he was taking too long.

Fearing that efforts to bring RHI under control would fail, David Sterling, then the civil service head in Finance and now Northern Ireland’s most senior official, told a fellow mandarin by text that he feared Ó Muilleoir was “acting under instruction”.

Despite being urged by officials to accept the curbs , Ó Muilleoir also consulted with senior former IRA members such as Padraic Wilson and Martin Lynch, who have no elected role and are largely unknown to the public.

Ó Muilleoir told the inquiry that Howell had been “brought back to chair a crisis committee” for Sinn Féin but insisted that he was only consulting him “about the timing” of his decision, not about what the decision should be.

No one involved was an expert in renewable energy, finance or law, yet they were in pole position as Ó Muilleoir considered proposals to retrospectively slash subsidies that had been promised for 20 years.

Sinn Féin played down the significance of the Ó Muilleoir revelation, but it fuelled charges from political rivals on both sides of the border that the party’s elected representatives do not fully hold the reins of power within the party.

It highlighted, too, the sluggishness of decision-making within a party where its ministers feel the need for protracted consultations with senior republicans while also being under pressure to make decisions.

It may help to explain, too, the slow pace set by the DUP and Sinn Féin in office, and it will factor into the thinking of parties in the Republic considering any coalition deal with Sinn Féin in future years.

Weakened civil service

For now Northern Ireland’s civil service is the most vulnerable, however. By choosing to largely adopt a position of self-flagellation at the inquiry, it is difficult for people such as Sterling to then make the case for its defence.

Politicians, some with a vested interest in shifting blame from themselves, are circling. Last November Foster called for major reforms, including the possibility of putting the North’s civil service under Whitehall command.

If carried out, it would end the independence that Stormont officials have enjoyed since partition in 1921, so it is unlikely to happen – not least because Sinn Féin would not accept a shift of power to London.

But the very fact that such an idea is being raised by a senior politician – probably the first time that has happened since Northern Ireland’s creation – illustrates how damaged the Stormont civil service now is.

Whitehall is taking more interest, in any event. A year ago Sue Gray, once Whitehall's second most powerful figure, quit London to become permanent secretary in the Department of Finance in Belfast.

No date is yet set for Coghlin’s final report, but it is unlikely before Easter. However, he has already given fair warning that some who have come before him “may be subject to quite significant criticism”.

For now the inquiry team continues to sift through more than 1.2 million pages of documentary evidence and transcripts produced during 111 days of evidence.

Stepping down two years ago, Martin McGuinness vowed that Sinn Féin would never again accept a “return to the status quo” where the DUP believed in its right to rule.

However, the Coghlin inquiry is set to ensure that the rules of politics change for everybody. A return to the normal way of doing business in Stormont is now almost impossible.

Sam McBride is political editor of the Belfast Newsletter